For today’s post, I’ve compiled a list of 40 pantry foods, divided up by food groups. I designed it this way because I want you to have options for each food group so that it’s easier to put together a balanced meal. I tried to include some foods that you may not have already thought of to help keeps things fresh.
A few quick notes:
- Every item on this list is a food that does not require refrigeration (until you open it).
- I did not include common pantry baking staples, such as baking powder, flour, sugar, etc.
- I also did not include common cooking and baking herbs and spices, such as cinnamon, thyme, etc.
Here are details about the foods on the list, just in case you want more info on what they are or why I chose them.
Canned meat or fish: Look for canned meat or fish if you’re interested in shelf-stable animal-based protein. When you’re buying these, two things to look at are whether they are packed in oil or water, and how much sodium has been added. Water-packed varieties will be lower and fat, and lower sodium products are preferable in general. Don’t forget to look for canned salmon, clams, sardines, etc. if you want to change things up. (i)
Jerky: This is another (usually) animal-protein option, and there are many varieties. Case in point: I bought some salmon jerky at a healthy-foods store a few months ago, and while researching this blog post, I found a bunch of tofu jerky recipes online. Jerky is usually high in sodium, so just keep an eye on the portion size when you’re eating it.
As far as plant-based proteins go, you’ve got a ton of choices.
Nuts and seeds: Any nut or seed is healthy at baseline, just be mindful of what’s added to it (such as sugar or salt). Both nuts and seeds have small portion sizes (1/2 an ounce). (ii)
Nut butters and nut-butter alternatives: These now come in a variety of options, including peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter, hazelnut cocoa butter (Nutella), soy nut butter, and sunflower seed butter. I recommend natural options without sugar added if possible. Like with nuts and seeds, be mindful of the portion size of nut butters (1 tablespoon). (ii)
Roasted chickpeas or soybeans: These are usually found in the health-foods aisle of the store. They are great for a quick and easy crunchy snack.
Evaporated and powdered milks: Evaporated milk and powered milk (a.k.a. dry or non-fat milk) can both be used in recipes or reconstituted for drinking by adding water. These should not be confused with sweetened condensed milk, which is a very thick sugary substance used for making sweets and desserts (like fudge or Thai iced tea). Thanks to the Dietitians of Canada for providing great resources on these two items.
Coconut milk: I use canned coconut milk often in cooking and baking, but I don’t recommend it for drinking. It does make for a delicious curry or Tikka Masala. You can even make whipped cream out of it.
Shelf-stable milk cartons: When I say shelf-stable milk cartons, I just mean the kind that are packaged like juice boxes and don’t require refrigeration. Horizon makes an organic, cow’s milk version of these. Before soy milk and other non-dairy milks got really popular, they were all packaged in shelf-stable, non-refrigerated containers. There are a lot of options for these, so pick your favorite.
Moon cheese: Moon cheese is just straight-up dried cheese (kind of like astronaut ice cream). I had never even heard of it until I visited my brother in Seattle a few months ago. While I personally did not like it, my brother and his wife both love it. So it may be worth a try for you.
In general, grains are already quite shelf-stable. Foods like oatmeal, rice, quinoa, and pasta all keep for a long time. For the best nutritional benefit, try to make at least half of your daily grain selections a whole grain version.
Whole grains: Besides rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and popcorn, you can choose from a lot of other options in this category. Some lesser known or less popular grains like millet, amaranth, bulgur, buckwheat, etc. are definitely worth a try. If you’ve never eaten these before and you have access to a health-foods store, I recommend buying a small amount in bulk to try them out before committing to a larger bag.
Pasta: Pasta comes in a lot of types these days, from whole grain to gluten-free to mung bean. Buy some new options if you want to branch out and try new recipes. For instance, sesame soba noodles are delicious and can be eaten hot or cold.
Crackers and bread: These both come in many varieties, including both whole grain and “white” versions. Bread also comes in many different forms, such as bagels, loaves, English muffins, etc. We keep our bread in the fridge to extend its shelf life.
Cereal: Cereal make for a quick and easy breakfast, but there is a spectrum with regard to how nutritious these are. At one hospital I worked at, we advised clients that sugary cereals should actually count as a dessert! I recommend checking a few things on the label to compare the quality: portion size (there is a huge variability from one cereal to the next), sugar content/added sugars, and fiber (look for at least 2.5 g of fiber per serving if you want a good source). (i)
Tortillas: These can be used for their traditional purposes, such as tacos and burritos, or they can be made into casseroles or even used as a bread substitute. We also keep these in the fridge at home to extend their shelf life.
Canned vegetables: There are a lot of options for canned vegetables – and that’s a good thing! Aside from your typical canned peas and corn, you can really get creative here. Canned asparagus, artichokes, even canned pumpkin or collard greens. Now is a great time to experiment in the canned foods aisle at your store.
Canned or dried beans/peas: Beans and peas also count as vegetables, so that opens up a lot of additional options for this category. You can buy them ready-to-eat in cans, or purchase them dried. Dried beans are cheaper and are actually quite easy to make. I never cooked dried beans (besides lentils) until I learned that you don’t have to soak them ahead of time. Now I cook them often, and they actually taste much better than the canned kind. Here’s a great primer on all things bean from Melissa Clark at The New York Times.
Olives and roasted red peppers: These can often be found near each other on the condiment aisle of your grocery store. Olives are a source of healthy oils. Roasted red peppers can be used in sandwiches or added to pasta dishes for a red-vegetable boost.
Vegetable juice: This tends to be extremely high in sodium, so look for low-sodium options.
Salsa and pasta sauce: I realize these two are a little controversial. Both of these come in a variety of options of varying quality. Tomato- and vegetable-based pasta sauces do, in fact, count as a vegetable serving, if you use a large enough portion (e.g. 1/2 cup). (iii) Salsa counts too, although if it’s made with a fruit like mango, it would count partially as a fruit serving. (iv)
Really any kind of fruit that you can find – canned, dried, freeze-dried, or 100% juice – is going to be a useful pantry food.
Canned fruit: For canned fruits, look for those packaged in 100% juice or with “no sugar added.” With that being said, if you get to the grocery store and the only fruit they have left is in heavy syrup, go ahead and buy it. I found myself in that situation a few weeks ago. I picked up canned peaches, saw that they were in heavy syrup, and almost put them back. But then I realized – peaches in heavy syrup are still better than no fruit at all – and so I bought them. I always drain my canned fruit anyway. If it happens to be the kind in heavy syrup, I just give it an extra rinse before serving.
Unsweetened applesauce: This is just applesauce made without added sugar.
Dried fruit and fruit leathers: For these, try to find varieties without added sugar (check the ingredients on the label).
Freeze-dried fruit: If you’ve had the red berry version of Special K cereal, then you’ve had freeze-dried fruit before. It’s a great addition to cereals because it rehydrates in the milk. You can find many different types of freeze-dried fruit, and they typically do not have added sugars.
Fruit juice: A portion of juice is only 8 oz, which is quite small by today’s standards.
Olive oil/other oils: Oils are useful when cooking at home, and olive oil is a heart-healthy oil because of its monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA) content. It’s the primary oil in the Mediterranean Diet, which is touted for its health benefits.
Dark chocolate: Chocolate contains phytonutrients called flavanols, which may be heart-healthy. Dark chocolate has a higher flavanol content than milk chocolate, and it typically contains less sugar. (v) Also, it just tastes good. It’s important that our food is nourishing to both our body and spirit.
Cocoa powder: Look for versions that are not Dutch-processed, as this process removes the phytonutrients. (v) Cocoa powder can be used in baking or smoothies to add a flavor boost.
Chia seeds: Chia seeds are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and fiber, plus they contain protein, iron, calcium, magnesium, and zinc. This makes them a great option for vegetarians, since omega-3’s, protein, iron, calcium, and zinc can all be shortfall nutrients (especially for vegans). I love this recipe for chocolate pudding made with chia seeds and cocoa powder. It’s got a super light and fluffy texture, and it can easily be made as a vegan recipe.
Your favorite sweet treat: Don’t forget to add some “fun foods” to your pantry. It’s beneficial to eat healthy most of the time, but it’s also okay to splurge once in a while too.
Get the list here
Hopefully that answers all of your questions about the items on the list. Now get yours below.
One last quick tip – keep this list with you all the time by either downloading it straight to your phone or taking a picture of the printed copy. That way you can refer to it easily the next time you go to the store.
Download the list
Click below to download the list of 40 Pantry Foods for a Balanced Diet.
Is there anything you’d like to see added to the list? Email me or comment below and share your idea.
Yours in good health,
While Helena is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), she is not providing Medical Nutrition Therapy on this website. Anything found here, including downloads and other content, should not be construed as medical advice. The information provided by her is general nutrition/health/fitness information, and is not individualized to your specific medical condition. Helena is not liable for any losses or damages related to any actions you take (or fail to take) as a result of the content presented herein. Please note that the information presented here is not intended to diagnosis or treat any health conditions. Talk to a qualified health professional, such as a doctor or a registered dietitian, about your specific health questions or concerns.
- Duyff, R. (2017). Complete food and nutrition guide (pp. 176-179). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Duyff, R. (2017). Complete food and nutrition guide (p. 280. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Duyff, R. (2017). Complete food and nutrition guide (p. 34). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Duyff, R. (2017). Complete food and nutrition guide (p. 367). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.